Thomas Thompson


24th May 2004
Fargo Poster reviewer: Thomas Thompson
rating: 2 out of 5
directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell
genre: Crime Thriller Drama
released: 31st May 1996

Fargo is the film that landed the Coen Brothers many an award and all the fame that comes with it. It is billed as a dark comedy, and was very successful critically upon its release in 1996. At the Oscars it won the Best Screenplay award, and Frances McDormand was granted Best Actress for her role as the pregnant cop. It was nominated for a further five categories. Applauded for its dark wit, the film is highly regarded by many.

Having watched Fargo once, I see the above statement as much darker than any of the humour on display in the film. The script is simply not funny. The characters are simply not in anyway interesting, and the whole film strikes me as a poor Tarantino impersonation. There are a couple of good scenes, which involve little speech and a nice dose of violence and bloodshed, inserted into an otherwise uninteresting film, acted out without much charisma. The silent partner to Steve Buscemi's character is the Mr White of this tale. Comparing the two is like comparing a Sunday roast to a can of processed spam.

Having watched Fargo twice, I'm less critical. Perhaps because I haven't seen any great films of late. The film strikes me less as trying to be funny, and more playing it as a thriller first. Going into it without much expectation did it favours, as I wasn't left disappointed after 20 minutes like I had been on first viewing, having had high hopes for the film. The plot makes for the backbone of a good film, it's just a shame the (award winning) script didn't make better use of it. It's the script where this Coen Brothers offering falls down most, I think, as the actors are given conversational dialogue that just fails to entertain. There is no point where you are pulled into the film; the dialogue just doesn't immerse you. There's no back and forth bonding between characters, and there's no bonding between the characters and the viewer.

The characters themselves aren't so much weak or two dimensional, but they are poor characters. They are people that you have no interest in. Steve Buscemi's kidnapper does a good job of not shutting up, but unlike in films like Reservoir Dogs, you wish he would. The voices of the local population of Fargo (hence the name) are incredibly grating to say the least. The interaction between characters is decent enough, as is the acting for the most part, though there isn't a huge demand in that department, as no character is anything out of the ordinary. Buscemi's partner in crime is maybe not as akin to Michael Madsen's Mr Blonde as I'd thought, though he is the killer without mercy, and simply doesn't compare on a charismatic level. There's no lead in the film, and that's a problem. No one carries the film. No one owns the scene for the most part. Instead we're left with a script that could have done with a few rewrites, and a film that keeps your attention with the plot and direction only.

Luckily the story at least keeps your attention from wandering: the pacing, bar some pointless but short cut aways, is viewer friendly. The film moves along at a nice old speed, and there are some original camera angles that keep things fresh. There's even the occasional humour that does hit the mark. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes it's a fairly short film by today's standards, and the violence and gore probably had more of an effect when it was released 8 years ago (at time of writing), but there are reasons to enjoy the film. It's not worthy of the awards it has picked up, but neither is it deserving of the harsh first impression I had for it. When all is said and done though, the characters aren't memorable, and in this day and age neither is the gore. The premise isn't particularly original, though it's plotted well enough, and pretending the film is based on real events strikes me as being a bit of a double edged sword. Films based on true stories (when played straight) aren't particularly known for their entertainment values.

Basically, if you go into this expecting an Oscar winning dark comedy you could be setting yourself up for a large disappointment. If you think of this as a thriller that doesn't take itself too seriously, you should find enough to like. There's a couple of standout scenes, the first few murders on the highway in particular, which would suggest the makings of a better film.

'Entertaining enough' is quite apt I think. You could do plenty worse, but you could also do plenty better.